Making the case for debates as part of an effective content marketing strategy

© Leon Foggitt / Intelligence Squared © Leon Foggitt / Intelligence Squared

The New York Times is among smart companies and marketing managers waking up to the fact that debates can put them at the heart of the big issues facing their customers and sectors, writes Sophy Buckley

Ask a marketing manager what content marketing encompasses and they’ll mention white papers, blogs, vlogs, news, features, social media, video, perhaps even radio and TV. Few, if any, will include debates.

According to Matthew McAllester, managing director of Intelligence Squared, which has been holding debates since 2002, this omission is an error. “Debates are ideal content marketing vehicles because they offer the opportunity to be seen to be at the heart of really big, important conversations,” he says.

The company has its own calendar of events and also works with third parties to create events for them, many of which are white-labelled. Its format works so well that Intelligence Squared has just signed a deal to create a series of debates with the New York Times. Called Intelligent Times, the series will bring together leading NYT journalists with thought leaders to discuss the key issues for 2020 live in front of an audience. The topics scheduled include the US presidential elections, climate change and the impact of misinformation on society.

Staking a claim to the conversation

For the NYT, it’s a great way of showcasing its own big hitters and participating in what Intelligence Squared calls a “global conversation that enables people to make informed decisions about the issues that matter” – even though it is already a highly respected newspaper. But McAllester says that any organisation that commissions a debate gets a lot of bang for its buck.

Not only does it get the event itself but it can be recorded on video, turned into a podcast, précised in a blog, tweeted and turned into news stories or features for a far wider audience. It could even be part of a campaign including a white paper for a deeper dive into a subject, for example.

The debate format, which can include an audience vote before and after the action, lends itself well to organisations in financial services, technology, pharma, energy, consumer goods, plastics and not-for-profit – really any sector where there is a wider debate about the future that might touch on ethics, sustainability, cost, trust, opportunity or responsibility.

“It’s a very smart way to show that you’re at the heart of the big issues in your field and have links with the big thinkers. We get star names to come and debate robustly with each other at such a high level – often giving original thought and critical responses,” says McAllester. “It’s fascinating and the voting aspect means the audience is involved, too. They become part of this very high-level conversation, which they love.”

© Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared

One event for a financial-services client focused on the long-term impact Brexit will have on the premium London property market, for example. But there is also scope for lighter topics – another event, for a different financial-services client, featured a debate about whether Paul McCartney or John Lennon was the greater Beatle. The venue – Abbey Road Studios itself – was as much a star as the debaters.

Getting it right

The ideal format is a 90-minute event: 60 minutes of discussion and 30 minutes of questions from the audience. “That’s always our rough goal,” says McAllester. “It can be shorter, but any longer is too much.”

A debate can take place at any time of day, but in his experience 7pm is the prime slot. “You can offer drinks before and dinner after to make it a networking event, too,” he says. “It’s a good idea to try to keep the conversation going afterwards, with follow-up emails, highlights reels and podcasts.”

When Intelligence Squared organises a debate – upcoming public events include Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, Labour MP Kate Hoey and Sayeeda Warsi, Conservative member of the House of Lords, arguing out whether we should be proud or ashamed of Britain, as well as wine expert Oz Clarke debating the merits of old-world wines versus their new-world counterparts with the subject’s doyenne Jancis Robinson – the first thing it does is decide the topic. This is best if it lends itself to a binary vote – for or against – because this gamifies the event, helping to add friction and interest for the audience.

A good example might be on whether industry should stop producing and using plastic. It’s a complex issue with many nuanced points, so an audience listening to real experts might learn something new and even be persuaded to change their position.

For topics that are important but not particularly binary you can leave out the vote. McAllester gives the example of whether China or the US is ahead in the artificial intelligence race. “While the conversation is very polarised, no one knows the answer. The discussion around it is fascinating and important, but it might not lend itself to a vote,” he says.

Next comes deciding who debates and who is going to be the chair. Again, this is something Intelligence Squared can help with because the firm has an extensive contacts book, but some organisations like to find their own participants.

It’s a good idea to have external people who are used to being part of this type of event. Drawing on in-house talent from the C-suite might be politically correct, but not everyone has the right skills to carry an audience with them for an hour.

“We sometimes side step the issue of using senior in-house people by having them introduce the event, and this bit doesn’t even have to be live. It can be recorded or be a written introduction which takes the pressure off,” he says.

Having external thought leaders can also demonstrate how well networked the organisation is and that it is aware of new directions of thought that aren’t yet mainstream.

Be prepared

The chair is the lynchpin. Get that right and you’re more than half way to a good event. They should be able to direct the debaters, getting them to move on should it get repetitive, keep the peace should the discussion get fractious and help everyone stay on topic. Once you’ve decided who’s involved, try to make sure that the points of view really do oppose each other and that all the speakers and the chair are well prepared.

“Sometimes people do try to wing it,” admits McAllester. “You really need to catch that before it happens. We do this by asking them about what they are planning on saying and explain that we want to make sure there is sufficient friction to make the debate interesting. We might ask them to send us 10 bullet points and the structure. This helps them focus their thoughts and allows us to find out if they’re going to be ill-prepared, in which case we step in.” This means providing research and briefing notes.

For the event itself, the production values have got to be equally high. McAllester recommends hiring a professional production team that can do the sound and lighting. He also likes to make sure that there’s an executive producer in charge of the live event.

“If there’s a producer watching the event unfold they can help the chair. I like to make sure the chair, for example, has an earpiece through which the producer can talk. So if anyone does get stuck or needs help or even fact-checking it can be done smoothly without interrupting the flow,” he says.

It all amounts to a lot of organisation. “A good event comes down to the little things just as much as who’s speaking and the topic. We always recommend to the chair that they take the first question from a woman, for example. We’ve found this increases the likelihood of more women asking questions subsequently, which adds diversity to the points of view,” explains McAllester.

With companies of the calibre of the NYT wanting to add debates to their content marketing programmes, it’s a good indication of the huge value they can add. Perhaps it’s time for marketing managers everywhere to reassess their strategy.